Charles Uwiragiye (left), visiting a Batwa community in northern Rwanda.
Credit: IRIN
Interview with Charles Uwiragiye, executive director of the Rwandan Cultural Conservation Act (CCA) and secretary of the Central African region of the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of Tropical Forests.

For more than 10 years, Charles Uwiragiye has been a key figure in promoting the rights of Batwa pygmies in Rwanda. Today, he is an active international participant in the struggle to protect indigenous groups in Central Africa. He has regularly attended the United Nations Working Group for Indigenous Populations held every July in Geneva, which aims at strengthening international cooperation for helping indigenous people in areas such as human rights, the environment, education and health. Uwiragiye also attended the first Earth Summit in conjunction with the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which took place in Brazil in 1992. At his office in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, Uwiragiye shared his perceptions on the issues and challenges facing the Batwa in his country.

QUESTION: Are you a member of the Batwa community?

ANSWER: Yes, indeed, I am.

Q: Could you describe the Batwa and their situation in Rwanda today?

A: The Batwa are the first people who inhabited this region and other areas of the Central African rainforests, since time immemorial. Eventually, other ethnic groups - who, unlike the Batwa, practiced agriculture and pasture - pushed us away from our natural habitats. The steady dispossession of our lands over several centuries was made easy by our small numbers, small social groups and our egalitarian culture, with values that emphasise openness and sharing. Pushed away from our lands and origins, many Batwa became servants or agricultural labourers working for the Bahutu and Batutsi.

Today, the Batwa represent a minority people. In Rwanda, we number between 25,000 to 30,000 out of a population of 8 million. We are engulfed by the rest of the Rwandan population, making it difficult to fight for our rights as an indigenous group. We are a vulnerable people.

Q: What exactly do you mean by the term “a vulnerable people”?

A: Well, if the Batwa cannot afford education for their children, and education is the backbone of the social infrastructure and development of a country, that will undoubtedly make us vulnerable.

There is no land available for the Batwa. This means that we are always on the move. Today in Rwanda, land is a big issue. Being the most populated country in Central Africa, with around 340 people per square kilometre, pressures on the available land are intense. But we need to get a share of the little land that is available, so that we can catch up to the economic mainstream of the country. Lack of education and lack of land are major catalysts for the Batwa's extreme poverty. Today, many Batwa can be seen begging on the street corners of Kigali, in urban areas and even in small villages. We are poor; we are being discriminated against. Our people have become the beggars of Rwanda.

Q: Could you give examples of cases of discrimination towards the Batwa in Rwanda?

A: Let's take an example of social integration. In many cases, Batwa cannot share food or drinks with other Rwandans. Looking shaggy, dirty, nearly naked and smelling bad, an extremely poor Batwa can be easily recognised. People will turn their backs at him, not even daring to touch the same plate he ate from. This is a common example of discrimination of Batwa, the poorest ethnic group in Rwanda at the present day.

Q: Do you see any chance of the situation improving for the Batwa?

A: To a certain extent, they are. We are pushing the government, down to the local community, to recognise the Batwa as their counterpart and to integrate them into the social and economic fabric of the country. We are pushing very hard, and the government is increasingly recognising the Batwa and their inclusion in society.

Q: What happened to the Batwa community during the 1994 genocide, which resulted in the death of nearly one million Rwandans?

A: In 1994, genocide happened; a war broke out. Bullets make no distinction. We all suffered the consequences of those terrible days. I was in Kigali at the time; I saw it with my own eyes. I lost my brothers, my sisters - they were killed. The Batwa population suffered greatly. Being extremely poor and a minority, representing only 1 percent of the overall Tutsi and Hutu population, some of us were manipulated to play both sides of the conflict. In some cases, we were involved in the genocide, becoming killers and victims. Approximately 10,000 Batwa were killed as a consequence of the genocide and the ensuing war; this death toll accounts for 10 percent of the overall Batwa population.

Q: What did returning populations find when the new regime was established in 1994?

A: Everything was destroyed. The defeated militia, fleeing to neighbouring countries, flattened everything that stood on their way. The returning population found their land, crops and property completely destroyed. During that time, there were two different types of people coming back to Rwanda: the ones that had been in exile for more than 30 years due to the previous regime, and then there were the displaced populations, who fled to neighbouring countries due to the genocide and ensuing war in 1994. The ones that had been in exile in different countries in Africa did not get back their ancestral lands and property, as the new government did not recognise their rights to land. They had, in many cases, acquired different citizenships, and as such were not entitled to any compensation.

Thousands of people came back during the establishment of the new government of 1994. There was a big confusion, and no one got his or her land and property back at the beginning. It took time, and those times were particularly difficult for the Batwa population, as the newly established land bills gave far-reaching powers to the government to confiscate lands that were not used or farmed properly. A dilemma arose in that the Batwa do not usually practice agriculture. Their ways are different from the rest of the Rwandan population. So, much of the wetlands that the Batwa depended on for collecting clay for making clay pots were confiscated by the government. This was a heavy blow to the Batwa community, as pottery was their most important economic income.

Q: Is pottery still the main source of income for most Batwa communities in Rwanda today?

A: Yes, it is. We still have a big problem of lack of education within the Batwa population, and so we are very behind in comparison with the rest of the main economic activities of the country. Pottery is still the main income, but at the same time this is an extremely low economic activity. This should make you understand the seriousness of our situation. Industrial containers are replacing at a fast rate the pottery of the Batwa, and so the prospects for making a living out of these artisan skills are decreasing dramatically.

Q: Is there any current government land policy or poverty-reduction strategy that is concerned with supporting the Batwa?

A: That is a good question. There is a new land policy that was accepted by the Rwandan government in 2005. The bill doesn't mention in particular the Batwa community, but it is aimed at the Rwandan population in general, and there is a special reference to vulnerable groups within the country. A special section in the bill supports minority groups in providing them land. Even if this land is merely a token, it is a step forward on behalf of the government to promote Batwa communities throughout the country.

In addition, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) in Rwanda is concentrating on implementing strategies to eradicate poverty and place the country on a path of substantial development. The partnership is reviewing current initiatives jointly with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other major international donors. Of course in the long run, the Batwa, like the rest of the population, will benefit from these initiatives.

Q: With the current humanitarian crises unfolding worldwide - such as the devastating drought in East Africa and the aftermath of the Pakistani earthquake - is the world really hearing the cry of the Batwa of Central Africa? If so, to what extent is international help being given?

A: We are not satisfied with the catalysing of the international community when it comes to promoting the Batwa in Rwanda. I believe that when the international community comes to this country, they follow too much the policy of the government, and so as usual, our case is being pushed down the ladder of priorities.

Humanitarian organisations always work following the government's guidelines. This is because of political and security reasons. This country just came out of a chaotic past - we've just gotten out of the war - so the government feels that it has to have control over all national and international operations that happen within the country.